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Once a hermit, now a healer - for addicts

Hermits are supposed to be recluses, out of touch with the world around them and unable to connect with anyone.

Sister Margaret McKenna stands near her garden at the New Jerusalem Now rehab program in North Philadelphia.
Sister Margaret McKenna stands near her garden at the New Jerusalem Now rehab program in North Philadelphia.Read more

Hermits are supposed to be recluses, out of touch with the world around them and unable to connect with anyone.

But that description doesn't quite fit North Philadelphia's hermit nun, Sister Margaret McKenna, 79, a Medical Mission Sister who has become a beloved figure in her community.

Twenty years ago, McKenna founded New Jerusalem Laura to help recovering drug and alcohol addicts overcome old habits and succeed in life.

But McKenna didn't come to North Philadelphia intending to institute social change: She came to get away from the world.

In 1989, she bought a run-down house on a desolate block of Norris Street near 20th. To her, it was a perfect place to realize her dream of establishing a hermitage based on desert spirituality, which, according to McKenna, holds that separation from the world can help one concentrate on and develop the essentials of Christian faith.

Shortly after her arrival in North Philadelphia, she found that the life of solitude and prayer she had hoped for would have to wait. Seeing the harsh realities of the neighborhood around her, she saw that something else was needed.

"What had the most impact was the addiction," she said. "Every time you'd look out the window you'd see deals or something going on about drugs. It seemed like whatever problems there were [in the neighborhood] were related to drugs."

Instead of continuing on with her life as a hermit and turning a blind eye to the world just outside her window, McKenna opened her door to those who had nowhere else to turn.

Since its foundation in 1989, New Jerusalem Laura has grown into a wide-reaching organization that operates from six Philadelphia houses.

The recovery community has since adopted the name New Jerusalem Now and features basic and advanced recovery programs.

Recently, the program has fallen on hard times. As a result of the economic downturn and city budget crisis, grants and donations are harder to come by, McKenna said. To raise donations, the program will hold a "Summer Soulstice" party on its block of Norris Street from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

"We have a holistic philosophy," said McKenna of the recovery program. "We want it to be an experience of a new way of life for them."

That way includes a highly structured program that engages recovering addicts through art, poetry, interfaith Bible study and community service - the backbone of the program.

McKenna said that members of the program are involved in various peace and justice efforts throughout the city. New Jerusalem runs an anti-violence program and its members are active in neighborhood-improvement initiatives.

"If society is what made you sick, you're not going to stay well unless you change society," she said, stressing service's crucial role in her program.

Plenty of good comes out of New Jerusalem, she said, and the neighborhood is taking note. While some folks might cringe at the thought of a drug-rehab house down the street, she says that the community has come to embrace the program and its members.

Despite the recent financial difficulties, McKenna said, New Jerusalem is looking into self-sustaining initiatives and will continue to forge ahead.

It will do so without her at the helm. She retired last year as director of New Jerusalem, but she remains involved in the program by leading Bible study every morning.

Although her role has changed, her impact is still felt by those whose lives she has touched.

"I think she's a saint," said David Ryle, 32, a program coordinator for New Jerusalem Now.

"I love Sister Margaret," said Azraa Sahi, 29, a recovering addict. "She gives us a foundation we never had before."

"Sister Margaret has helped me look at life differently," said Raymond Walters, 51, who has been in the program for more than a year. "She's such a good person. She loves helping people. She loves people, period."

A hermit who loves people, and whom people clearly love. Imagine that.